Wednesday 22 May 2024

Henley-on-Thames parkrun

Henley-on-Thames is a town in the south east corner of Oxfordshire with a population of around 12,000 people. The location is believed to have been inhabited since the second century, but the first written evidence for it being a significant settlement is from 1179 when King Henry II bought the land for 'the making of buildings'. There are multiple theories on the origin of the name, but with the same underlying theme. It may be that it comes from the Old English 'Hean-Leage' which would translate into 'settlement by the old wood' or maybe simply Hen (old) and Ley (place).

The town is located on the west bank of the River Thames, and the course of the river forms the border between Oxfordshire and Berkshire. This location on the Thames has been used as a crossing point for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, and the first record of a bridge dates back to King Henry II's reign at the end of the 12th century. The current Henley Bridge was constructed in 1786 and is now a Grade I Listed structure. Henley is probably most famous for the Henley Royal Regatta which takes place each summer over a six day period ending on the first weekend in July. It is also home to the Leander Club, which is one of the oldest rowing clubs in the world and has multiple Olympic winning athletes amongst its members.

It's quite a desirable place to live and according to research done on property prices, Henley is the second most expensive market town in the country (nearby Beaconsfield is the first). This of course means it is a very exclusive place to live and many rich and famous people have resided here over the years. My visit to Henley-on-Thames was on 18 May 2024 and I entered the town by crossing the bridge where the picturesque riverfront comes into view, with the tower of St Mary's Church dominating the skyline. Heading through the main thoroughfare there are many historic buildings to see and at the far end stands the red-bricked, Grade II Listed, Henley Town Hall.

I was in Henley to take part in the town's free, weekly 5 kilometre event called Henley-on-Thames parkrun which has been a regular fixture since 1 July 2017 and is open to all abilities including those who wish to walk the course. The parkrun is located on the western edge of the town with its meeting point being on the Henley College Sports Field, which is accessed by passing through Henley Tennis Club at the end of a small road called Tilebarn Close. 

If arriving by car, free-of-charge on-street parking can be found on the nearby residential roads, but it can be a little tight. The parkrun course page notes Deanfield Road, Valley Road, Haywards Close and Harcourt Close as possible options. I found a space on Laud's Close. The car park next to the tennis club is private and not for use by parkrunners. Another parking option would be to use one of the town centre car parks; The Greys Road public car park is the closest and the onward walk to Tilebarn Close is about 1 kilometre.

The town also has a train station which is the terminus of a very short (7.4km) line which runs from the village of Twyford, in Berkshire. The regular Great Western Railway main line services will get you to Twyford from London's Paddington Station or from Reading and beyond. Twyford is also on the Elizabeth Line, so you could travel here from East or South East London quite easily. As I understand it there are also some bus services that run into the town including number 800 service which runs between Reading and High Wycombe, and also stops in Marlow.

One very important thing to take note of is that there are no toilet facilities at the venue. There are, however, multiple blocks of public toilets dotted around the town centre. The closest can be found in the Greys Road car park, and if travelling by train there is another block right opposite the station. Although the public toilets themselves are not particularly fancy, once you close and lock the door, the toilet's automated sound system kicks in and you will soon hear the pleasant sounds of classical music. I think this was a first for me, and given how exclusive Henley is, I shouldn't have been surprised by it. Another option for toilets, if you happen to be driving from the M25 or London direction, is to stop at the small petrol station in Remenham. Sadly no music in these ones, but did work out really well for me.

So, just to recap, at the end of Tilebarn Close, walk into the area with the tennis courts and then through the gate onto the sports field - this is where the parkrun meeting point, the start, and the finish are. Unless you arrive very early (guilty!), there should already be some volunteers milling around, putting up the pop-up sign and maybe constructing the finish funnel or putting a tarp for storing bags and jumpers. The first-timers' and the main briefings take place here and on my visit I found the team to be so amazingly detailed with the course explanation. There was also a very laid back atmosphere. With the briefings done, the eager crowd of parkrunners and parkwalkers form a start line and on the run director's instruction, head off across the sports field.

Henley-on-Thames parkrun has a 400 metre opening section, followed by two 2.1 kilometre laps, and finishes with the opening section in reverse which brings the total up to five kilometres. The course is 100% off-road featuring a combination of grass and dirt paths. The surface underfoot contains many hazards such as uneven surfaces, cambered sections, rocks, rabbit holes, and tree roots of varying sizes. Some of the pathways are very narrow, with quite long stretches only accommodating people in single file. On top of all of that, the course is hilly, and my Garmin recorded 77 metres of elevation change.

Depending on the time of year, there are also other things to take into consideration, for example I visited in May 2024 and the foliage had sprung into life. This resulted in things like nettles and thorns lining some of the pathways, and yes I got stung by the nettles. The winter brings with it its own challenge where the course becomes extremely muddy. With all this in mind, it will come as no surprise that this course is best tackled using trail shoes. Hopefully it will also explain why there are no dogs allowed at this event and why it would be very difficult to navigate with a running buggy (more on this a bit further down). I will also add that this course is definitely not suitable for wheelchair users.

Once at the end of the sports field the course officially crosses into the Chiltern Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and the participants disappear into the adjacent woodland and follow to the footpath as it weaves around and at the 400 metre point, the 2.1 kilometre loop begins.

The lap itself has traditionally been negotiated in an anti-clockwise direction, however, about a week or two before I visited, the land owners installed a brand new kissing gate right at the beginning of the original anti-clockwise loop. The gate only lets one person through at a time and you can imagine the kind of chaos this will bring just 400 metres into the parkrun. So when I visited, the lap had been changed to a clockwise loop. Also, I'm not entirely sure if you could physically get a buggy through this gate, so for now I would say this course is not suitable for those who wish to take part with a buggy.

The loop effectively goes around the perimeter of a piece of land called 40 Acre Field, which was home to some cows when I visited. However, you don't see the field at all times because the pathways are mostly tucked within the adjacent woodland. There are gaps in the trees and if you can remember to look up every now and then, you may find yourself rewarded with some very picturesque views. Also keep an eye out for the majestic Red Kites that reside locally and may be out hunting for breakfast during the parkrun.

The general theme of the lap is that you work your way up to the top and then come back down. The new clockwise course that was in use during my visit had the climb spread out over a longer distance and the lap ended with quite a steep downhill which is known locally as Sue Ryder Hill. The name reflects it being within a piece of woodland called Henley Wood, which is managed by volunteers from the local Sue Ryder Foundation. If the event returns to the anti-clockwise course, you will find the steeper Sue Ryder Hill incline first, followed by a more gradual decline.

It also worth bearing in mind that the field is secured using a barbed wire fence, so if you do happen to stumble on some uneven ground while immediately adjacent to the field, you really have to avoid the urge to grab hold of the fence. The course also features a short out-and-back section along a narrow bridleway called Pack and Prime Lane, so it gives an opportunity to be a bit social if you fancy it. It also means that there's another potential hazard to look out for; horses! From what I remember, I think the advice was that if you hear someone shouting out there is a horse approaching you better get out of the way as soon as possible.

At the end of the two laps, the course heads back through the original patch of woodland and out onto the sports field where all you need to do is keep heading straight across until reaching the finish funnel. Finishing tokens are handed out at the end of the short funnel and barcode scanning takes place immediately after. Once all of the parkrunners, parkwalkers, and talkwaker have completed the course, it all gets packed away and the team heads off to The Henley Chocolate Cafe, which is on Thameside. I didn't go to the cafe in the end and I'm kicking myself because they have an incredible menu containing over 20 different types of hot chocolate.

I had recorded the clockwise course using my Garmin and the GPS data can be viewed on Strava. I used the Relive app to create a course fly-by video and this can be viewed on YouTube. As I like to be helpful, I have also acquired the original anti-clockwise course GPS data and there is a fly-by video for that too.

My post parkrun activity was an additional five kilometres of wandering around the town taking in all of the sights including a little wander through the St Mary's Church churchyard where the grave of Dusty Springfield can be found. I also found the entrance gate to Friar Park which is the former home of the late George Harrison. The river was looking splendid and I saw many rowers training for the upcoming regatta. There are also pleasure boats run by Hobbs of Henley should you fancy a little trip on the Thames.

The results for event 280 were published later that day and 74 people completed the course, which is fairly representative of the number to expect here at Henley. The numbers may drop down into the 40's when the conditions are challenging, and they very rarely exceed 100, in fact in 280 events there have only been 5 which have entered triple digits. I would imagine the attendance figures stay fairly low due to the nature of the course, which is quite challenging in terms of hills and the underfoot terrain. However, it is a lovely venue for the parkrun to take place. I had a very nice morning and I'd like to finish off by saying a huge thank you to the team of volunteers.

Related Links:

Other parkruns in The Chiltern Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty:

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